Like Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader, former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has transitioned from an optimistic public education reformer to a jaded voucher advocate.
You may not be familiar with Rhee, but you should be because she might be affecting public education in your state, despite her thin resume.
Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992 with a degree in government and later obtained a master’s in public policy from Harvard, neither of which really suggested a future in education.
Yet Rhee ended up joining Teach for America (TFA), a program that seeks to place recent college grads, usually from elite schools, in classrooms populated by kids from low-income households. TFA sees this is a way to close the “achievement gap,” which basically means that kids from wealthy families tend to do better on standardized tests than poor kids of the same age. That’s a nice mission. The problem is, TFA spends very little time actually preparing its teachers for classroom instruction and has been criticized as little more than a resume builder for select college grads.
Rhee was placed in Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary in 1992 after just a few weeks of training, and it was an eye-opening experience for her. She later recalled that she had so much difficulty getting her second-grade students to be quiet, that one day she put masking tape over their mouths before they walked to the cafeteria. It did muzzle them, she said, but resulted in an unintended consequence.
“I was like, ‘OK, take the tape off,’” she said during a speech in 2010. “I realized I had not told the kids to lick their lips beforehand....The skin is coming off their lips and they’re bleeding. Thirty-five kids were crying.”
Rhee’s students didn’t fare so well on tests, either. In her first year, Rhee’s class dropped significantly in both reading and math scores from the previous year.
But in her second and third years at Harlem Park, Rhee’s students rebounded with major gains. Or so it seemed. This marked improvement came under fire in 2010 when Rhee was accused of lying on her resume about just how much those scores had increased. She said the discrepancy between the scores she claimed her students got and the scores they actually received resulted from her then-principal telling her what the scores were, which she took as fact.
By 2007, Rhee had positioned herself for a big-time education job. Then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee as chancellor of the city’s public schools, even though she had never been a school principal, let alone run an entire school system.
She immediately became a polarizing figure while attempting to dismantle and rebuild what was a troubled school system. In her first year, Rhee closed 23 schools, axed 36 principals and slashed about 120 other jobs. This angered some members of the D.C. City Council, who wanted an explanation for her actions.
But Rhee’s biggest fight was over teacher tenure, and in hindsight it offered a preview of her future work attacking the core of public schools. In 2008, Rhee essentially offered to trade tenure for cash, promising D.C. teachers bonuses of up to $40,000 in exchange for giving up tenure rights, or significantly lower salaries with some tenure options.
Rhee and the union sparred until 2010, when the two sides agreed on a compromise involving raises and bonuses tied to achievement with weaker seniority privileges for some teachers. With the deal done, Rhee fired 241 teachers and gave warnings to 737 other employees.
But that was the end of Rhee’s work in D.C. In September 2010, Fenty lost his reelection bid in a primary and Rhee resigned her post the next month.
Interestingly, during Rhee’s tenure she didn’t say much about vouchers. However, she did suggest that she was not a supporter of “school choice” schemes. In a 2008 statement, her office said: “While Chancellor Rhee hasn’t taken a formal position on vouchers, she disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.”
Times sure have changed. Rhee now heads a Sacramento, Calif.-based organization called StudentsFirst, which is bankrolled by wealthy donors who want to undermine teachers’ unions and create voucher schemes.
According to Slate, StudentsFirst spent $3 million in 2012 to make sure its favored political candidates got elected. While the majority of lawmakers it supports are conservative, StudentsFirst will help anyone who helps them, even if they’re Democrats.
In 2012, StudentsFirst’s Tennessee affiliate spent $109,000 in support of state Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) because he favors vouchers and charter schools, according to Slate. The money was enough, along with financial support from Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, to help secure DeBerry’s win.
Rhee still has her sights set on breaking teachers’ unions, but her group is pretty gung-ho about vouchers, too. On its website, StudentsFirst says, “Until states can guarantee equal access to an excellent public school for every student in every zip code, we must find a way to provide better choices for all families. Voucher programs can provide additional options for ensuring all boys and girls get the great education they need to succeed in life.”
In reality, vouchers are usually just an excuse to weaken public schools and redistribute some of their money to religious organizations. They don’t improve educational outcomes nor are they a solution to existing problems with public schools.
Given Rhee’s record, it’s a wonder anyone is listening to her when it comes to school reform. Likely they do because she has actual education experience, which makes her something of an anomaly in the education “reform” movement.
But Rhee isn’t credible. Anyone who put masking tape over her students’ mouths, made excuses for test score disparities and failed to do much beyond angering a lot of people during her time running a school system doesn’t have a great track record.
It seems there was a time when Rhee genuinely wanted to improve public schools. But her failures probably left her bitter, and now she is out to wreck public education in the United States under the guise of “reform.” Darth Vader would be quite proud.